What can screenwriters and novelists teach each other? Trish: Welcome to my tree-house, Stavros, I’m delighted you agreed to share with us some of your writing insights. Will you tell us, first, a bit about your background? Stavros: I was born in Alexandria, Egypt, but grew up in Greece and in South Africa prior to moving to England for a couple of years to study film at the London International Film School, on Shelton Street. On my return to South Africa, I started working as the resident screenwriter for Elmo De Witt Films, but also ran my own small company, which created corporate videos for a wide variety of clients. At about this time, I began teaching creative writing, communication, and digital animation, at colleges and universities, at undergraduate and graduate level in South Africa, an activity which I have continued to pursue in Australia. My biggest challenge has been to find time for my own work, especially the writing of novels. I wrote Scarab, my thriller/science fiction novel some years back and recently updated it for release on Amazon kindle, but haven’t had the chance to do much beyond that. Encouraged by the promising response to Scarab, I’ve decided to step back from full-time teaching at the end of this year to concentrate on my writing. In terms of academic work, I am currently awaiting the conferral of my PhD on new narrative structures from the University of Southern Queensland. Trish: And for those who haven’t yet discovered it, your website: http://stavroshalvatzis.com/ is a great source of writing tips. Stavros, you’re a man of many places, and equally wide experience, but what particularly interests me is your background in screenwriting and the film industry. You’re too modest to say so but I know you earned a distinction in writing and editing for your film studies. Could you tell us something about your filming work? Stavros: My job at Elmo’s was to sift through hundreds of movie scripts and make recommendations for possible production, but also to write and present my own scripts to the company. Unfortunately, I had entered the South African film industry in the early 1990s, a time of great political anxiety and expectation, when funding for films was being diverted to more pressing social reforms. Trish: Is that why you decided to leave film and concentrate on writing narrative? Stavros: That was only part of the reason. Working in film is exciting. I have enjoyed the energy and creative anxiety of it all. But it can also be frustrating. It is, at times, especially frustrating for a writer. Depending on the nature of the commission, we are often at the mercy of visible or invisible committees. Increasingly, ideas are evaluated, not according to aesthetic value, but to how well they might sell. This is just the nature of the job. Films cost a lot of money to make, and there is, of course, a lot of pressure to recoup investment. When a script gets past the committees and moves closer to production, it floats beyond the writer’s reach. Much of the script changes during this stage. Some changes are for the better; some, for the worse. In any event, a writer must simply step away from the script once it is sold, or risk becoming a liability to the shoot. Some writers deal with this better than others. Writing a novel, on the other hand, allows the writer full creative freedom. The fictional world is ours alone to make or break. As novelists, we sink or swim according to our own talents, and the world’s reception of them. At this stage of my life, I like these latter odds more. And now, with kindle and other electronic publishing nodes, we, as writers, are the sole gate-keepers of our fate. I believe we are standing at the threshold of a new era in writing. It feels a little like a revolution. Trish: Yes, it’s certainly an exciting time to be a writer, especially as the capacity for transmedia productions encourages us to experiment with new forms, including screenwriting. But how different are the techniques of screen writing from narrative writing? Stavros: This is an interesting question. I’ve recently been thinking that the preparation for writing a screenplay or a novel have a lot more in common than I originally thought, prior to researching the field for my PhD thesis on narrative structures. The overall context of this notion is that today’s audiences/readers are more enamoured of fast-moving narrative. That’s not to say, they are only interested in explosions, hijackings, and gunfights. It is only to suggest that the outer journey – the physical forward-moving aspect of a story is becoming more important in a world influenced by film, commuter games, and the frenetic activities of social media. The challenge for the novelist is to utilize this without harming the inner journey – without which, the outer journey implodes and is rendered meaningless. The way I plot a screenplay, prior to actually writing it, is to craft the major premise – what the story is about, and then to break it down into seven structural units – the ordinary world, the inciting incident, the first turning point, the mid-point, the second turning point, the climax, and the resolution. Each unit has two components – outer action and its inner motivation. The two streams are inseparable. Indeed, I regard the outer journey as a metaphor, a manifestation, of the inner journey. In plotting my next novel, The Level, which I hope to have ready for release by May next year, I am crafting the story spine in exactly the same way as I would the screenplay. The major difference is that the inner journey now has a voice – rendered and expanded through the protagonist’s point of view. The challenge is to present this voice separately from the author’s, while not giving too much away. Trish: You teach both narrative writing and screenwriting; do they require different approaches to teaching? Stavros: I’m currently teaching creative writing in various forums, my main thrust, however, has been the screenplay. My approach to the latter has been chiefly structural and functionalist in nature – turning points, mid-point, the story argument, and so on. In terms of technique, screenwriting requires brevity and precision: get the story going as soon as possible and keep it on track; minimise lengthy descriptions. Reveal plot and character through dialogue and representative action. In terms of teaching methodology, I make heavy use of exemplars from existing films, where we take a scene that utilises a specific technique – say the use of effective exposition – and break it down to see how it works. This has influenced my approach in teaching the novel, except that in the novel, we study how the writer uses additional layers to capture the fictional world – how the writer creates and orchestrates the textures, nuances, and rhythms flowing from the written words themselves. This requires additional tuition in the use of language – its music and colour. Here, a close examination of the text itself is the order of the day. Trish: When I’m writing short stories, I regularly dip into Robert McKee’s Story to help me think in scenes, to focus on ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’, but I’m sure there is more to it than that. What is it that screenwriting techniques have to offer the story writer? Stavros: The craft of screenwriting, as described by screenwriting gurus such as Syd Field, Robert McKee, Linda Seger, Michael Hauge, Christopher Vogler, is chiefly the craft of visually presenting the Protagonist’s story spine. But it is also the craft of selecting and using those interior elements that drive a story forward though action – goal, motivation, obstacle, confrontation, resolution – an outer journey contextualised and explained by the inner journey. If screenwriting teaches us about using pace, precision and action to drive our stories forward, the novel teaches us how to deepen character by simultaneously adding introspection, memory, and point of view to this pattern. Done well, the result of this synthesis is to produce exciting novels that are tight and kinetic, yet, are no less rich in texture, theme, and symbolism. Trish: A final question. Developing a voice as a writer is a long term project I think, and we develop all the time, you say there’s been a few years between drafting your first novel and the second one you are currently working on, do you recognise differences in the way you write now? Stavros: Well, yes. For a start, I’d like to think I know a lot more about the craft of writing now, than I did then – such as not skipping from perspective to perspective within a scene, or at least, ensuring that if one does so, there are strong dramatic reasons for this; also, better understanding the multiple layers of narration – mine, as Stavros Halvatzis; myself as a writer (who is a construct of Stavros Halvatzis and may or may not directly participate in the story); the biased narrator’s – such as Nick Carraway in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, who may be an actual character in the story, and the characters themselves, whose voices are inflected through the aforementioned layers. Above all this, I’d like to think that I understand a lot more about the human heart now than I did a decade ago, and that I’m a little wiser for all my mistakes, both in life, and in art. Lastly, developing one’s voice is more than the sum total of one’s experiences and mastery of technique. It is also something intimately and ineffably tied to the totality of one’s being – one’s soul, if I can put it rather melodramatically. Finding this voice, I think, lies beyond conscious thought. It comes when it’s good and ready. Trish: I think that’s a wise answer, if perhaps a frustrating thought for impatient writers. Thank you very much, Stavros, for giving your time to share so many stimulating ideas. I wish you every success with your full-time writing. Stavros: It’s been my pleasure, Trish. Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the work. You can follow Stavros on Twitter @SHalvatzis and read more about his novel from his website link near the beginning of this post.
Stavros Halvatzis: Author Interview